The high school and youth football teams will be practicing under higher light posts this fall after the Planning & Zoning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night, July 24, to change its regulations for town-owned properties and raise the lights at the high school. But the higher lights will just be for this fall — for now.
The conversation hinged mostly on semantics, as commissioners tried to word their regulation amendment to ensure the Darien Junior Football League, and the high school, would no longer be in violation of the regulations. Under the amended version, temporary lights were defined as portable and not permanently installed, and the maximum height for these lights was raised from 20 to 30 feet. This applies only to town-owned properties, and still requires a special use permit to go to the max height.
Neighbors of the high school have complained of the violation, but no formal citation has ever been issued. Commissioner Joe Spain said that’s because “it’s a state of equilibrium that has worked.”
“The 20-foot lights; even though they’re fully facing the neighborhoods on the north, they are tolerated, especially because the trees are growing there,” Spain said.
The football league planted about 75 arborvitae trees to help shield neighbors from directly viewing the filament and from indirect glare, but some neighbors could still see the lights yet tolerated it because it was temporary, Spain said.
Commissioners Susan Cameron, Eric Voigt and Reese Hutchison expressed concern that the new regulation should be slightly less stringent to ensure the league would not continue to be in violation.
“I don’t want to create a regulation that’s going to be violated,” Voigt said.
Chairman Fred Conze and Spain said the regulation should be strong, and that P&Z normally allowed for flexibility within certain special use applications, depending on the site.
“There’s a substantial amount of judgment that comes into play for the special permit,” Conze said. “They have to make certain findings. If under the special use permit, they’ve done everything they possibly can within reason to accommodate the tilting and mitigate the lighting as much as they possibly can, that becomes part of the findings of the special permit application.”
After approving the regulation change, commissioners also approved the football league’s special use permit, which is required to take temporary lights to 30 feet. However, commissioners were apprehensive to grant a five-year permit under the circumstances.
“We’ll give approval for this year,” Conze said, “have reports submitted in January  and then issue a four year permit.”
The reports would include neighbor feedback on whether the lights were helping to reduce glare or not, and from the football league and high school to see if the new height was improving safety and field visibility.
Holahan Field is still restricted to 20-foot lights because its special use permit remains active through the end of this year, according to Jeremy Ginsberg, director of planning and zoning. These lights are still powered by generators, whereas the high school lights are wired to the electrical system.
The football league plans on using the lights for 30 hours over a five-week period. The current permit expired this year, and it allowed the league 22.5 hours over a 15-day period.
The youth footballers can start using the lights in mid-October, and the varsity squad could begin on Nov. 1. All lights would be off by 7 p.m.
Darien is the only school in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference without permanent playing lights at its high school football field. Proponents of raising the lights argued that because the lights would be higher and pointed down at a steeper angle, the lights would bother neighbors less.
“I believe 30 feet may help the neighbors better than 20 feet, and it may help [the football league] see better on the field,” Hutchison said.